Family Patterns are Changing a Lot
Balancing work and family duties is already quite a challenge for lots of Europeans. Yet in the future, the care-needs of an increasing number of elderly people have to be met as well. How can modern family structures and childless people cope with these challenges? What can be done by individuals, as well as by society? Population Europe asked Anne-Sophie Parent:
Q: Which challenges does ageing mean on an individual level?
ASP: We are living longer than we used to; this means that we have many generations living together. As individuals we are facing several challenges. For example, those who are working will need to work longer, and they may need to look after older generations, as well as younger generations in a way nobody had to before. In the past you had the time to reach retirement age yourself before you had to look after your parents. Today more and more people have children later in life, which means that when they grow old and become dependent on others, their children will still be in the middle of their careers.
Q: What does it mean for families?
ASP: Family patterns are changing a lot; many people no longer live in the same town as their parents and their own children, as was the case for the vast majority up until the last century. But families themselves are also changing; there are a lot of separated families and more divorces, several partnerships, more individualism. All this creates new challenges. The way of organising care within families has to adapt.
Q: Will there be new family structures?
ASP: The notion of family is evolving. You see more and more attempts to create new relations between different age groups, there are quite interesting initiatives. There is an increasing number of old people who live totally isolated or are disconnected from their families or have no families left. But they do not yet have a health status where they would need to be looked after in an institution. There are programmes that support younger families to “adopt” a grandpa or a grandma. The aim is to encourage younger generations to look after old people with whom they don’t have a family relationship.
Q: Do you think that families are aware of upcoming changes?
ASP: They are. And sometimes it is quite amazing to see how they organise themselves. Particularly in the last 10 years we can see drastic changes. For example, there are now pools of informal or family carers around the old person who needs care. You see more and more initiatives where care is provided from a distance. By “care” I mean staying in contact with an older person, sharing tasks like shopping, etc. amongst a group of people. This is a dynamic model, not all the responsibility is on the shoulder of one person, which in former times was usually a woman. Instead you have others you can count on. That is model we will see more and more.
New technologies can play a big role in supporting social networking between informal carers, helping them to organise themselves better. But also it allows them to have contact with their older relatives at home even when they are at work.
Q: What about childless people, do we need special solutions for them?
ASP: Yes, they are at a higher risk of being isolated unless they create a network of friends around them that can replace relatives. This happens a lot. There are also many people who have children but they don’t want their children to have the burden of looking after them. They rather get together with other old people and rely on peer support instead of intergenerational support. That is a thing that people without children or relatives often do. It’s a great solution for them and there are interesting models, often involving older women. They live longer, often outlive their partners, and then they get together and help and support each other.
Q: Should childless people be more involved in caring for the elderly? Or should they compensate financially?
ASP: Being childless is not necessarily a choice you’ve made in life, and people should certainly not be blamed for that. The model that we promote is one based on solidarity between everyone. Not on the basis of what you can afford or decisions you may have made, but based on your needs. Those who are healthy support those who are unhealthy; those who have a job support those who have lost their job.
We don’t really get into the perspective of treating people with or without children differently, although there are discussions in some member states where, for example, you have duties imposed by legislation. That means if you have parents who need care and support and this support is provided by the public system, the children have to contribute toward the costs if the parents can no longer cover their share of the cost. You also have the duty to look after your ageing parents, just like parents have a duty to look after their children. But this is something that is not accepted in other member states where they don’t see why children should be made responsible for their parents because they feel that, after all, parents decide to have children but children don’t decide to be born, and the responsibility should be carried by the whole community. The Nordic approach, for example, is that everyone who has needs should be supported by the whole community.
Q: What does all this mean in terms of the solidarity between generations?
ASP: The demographic challenge has been known for a while and hasn’t really been addressed properly yet. This is aggravated by the current context of the public debt crisis in many member states and the whole EU. I think that everybody understands better that we are all much more closely related than we think. We all need to support each other to get ourselves out of this crisis together. There is a need to review the way our society is organised to ensure that everyone is empowered, whatever their age, to remain autonomous and to play an active role in society and the economy. People should have some very fundamental rights like access to universal coverage for health and long term care, support for decent living, an adequate income and so on. All those fundamental rights should be implemented much better than they are now. We are worried about the inequalities that are increasing everywhere. There are certain age groups that are harder hit than others. Some older people who have to rely on minimum pensions and benefits are really suffering. We are also very worried about the youth and the future that is in front of them. We have a duty to help rebuild the trust and confidence in our economy and to invest in areas that support employment and growth. The older people now acknowledge that they have rights but also duties towards the other generations. This wasn’t so much the case a few years ago.
Anne-Sophie Parent is Secretary General of AGE Platform Europe, a network representing 30 million people aged 50+. It aims to voice and promote the interests of the 30 million senior citizens in the European Union and to raise awareness on the issues that concern them most.
Interview: Isabel Robles Salgado, Population Europe